Citrine, Walter McLennan, first Baron Citrine 1887-1983, trade-union leader and electrician, was born 22 August 1887 at Liverpool, the second of the three sons and the third of the five children of Alfred Citrine (born, as was his father, Francisco Citrini), seaman, of Liverpool, and his wife, Isabella, hospital nurse, daughter of George McLennan, of Arbroath. He left elementary school at twelve and thereafter educated himself with dictionaries, textbooks on electricity, economics, accountancy and shorthand—in which he became expert—novels and plays, and the pamphlets and books on socialism and trade unionism current in the labour movement of the day. He applied this experience when general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, producing practical publications for trade unionists, notably his classic ABC of Chairmanship (1939).
Unable to obtain a job as a cabin boy, Citrine worked in a flour mill before securing an electrical apprenticeship. Employed by different contractors, he gained a varied experience in his trade, but did not encounter trade unionism until 1911. He became active in Liverpool in the Electrical Trades Union when the first successful attempts were being made at collective bargaining. In 1914 he was elected the ETU's first full-time district secretary and in 1920 an assistant general secretary, working in Manchester. He was thus thoroughly grounded in organizing and negotiating before starting work at the TUC as assistant general secretary on 20 January 1924. In October 1925 Citrine was recalled from his first visit to Russia to act as general secretary after the death of Fred Bramley. From September 1926 he was general secretary until he joined the new National Coal Board in 1946 with responsibility for education, training, and welfare. From 1947 to 1957 he was chairman of the Central Electricity Authority, and thereafter served as a part-time member on the Electricity Council, and on the Atomic Energy Authority (1958-62).
Throughout, Citrine displayed his outstanding administrative capacity, beginning with the files of the ETU and culminating in the transfer of 553 municipal and privately owned electricity undertakings to the Central Electricity Authority and its area boards. But he was much more than a great administrator. Frequently the seminal idea in an important development was his, as in the Mond-Turner conference with employers in 1928, after the general strike, and in his work as a member of the West Indies royal commission in 1938-9. His unsuccessful fight as a Labour candidate for Wallasey in the 1918 general election proved to be a youthful diversion. He declined Ramsay MacDonald's offer of a peerage in 1930, and in 1940 when (Sir) Winston Churchill (whose pre-war rearmament campaign he had supported) wanted Citrine in his government, he preferred to remain with the TUC. Always conscious that trade unions and political parties have different constituencies, he aimed to build the TUC into an organization which governments of any complexion would be prepared to consult. He saw this fulfilled, especially in the war years. He strongly resisted Communist Party attempts at disruption through the National Minority Movement and the communist solar system, but as president of the International Federation of Trade Unions (1928-45) he visited Russia again in 1935. In 1945 he presided over the World Trade Union conference which preceded the formation of the World Federation of Trade Unions. In 1944 he attended the Philadelphia conference of the International Labour Organization which established guidelines for its post-war work. Despite these constructive achievements, Citrine considered his years in the electricity supply industry after 1947 to be the most creative and happiest period of his life.
Ruthlessly self-disciplined, Citrine could be a martinet, but he was fair-minded and had considerable personal charm. A lighter side was reflected in his cornet playing, community singing, and love of the opera, and an idiosyncratic interest in palmistry. He published several perceptive but pedestrian accounts of his travels, based on his diary, the most important being I Search for Truth in Russia (1936). But he put his heart and understanding into two volumes of autobiography, Men and Work (1964) and Two Careers (1967) which stand as an education in trade unionism and public service and as a moving account of the making of an upright man. To this Dictionary he contributed the notices of Dame Caroline Haslett and Sir Arthur Pugh.
Citrine was appointed KBE (1935) and GBE (1958). He became Baron Citrine in July 1946. In 1940 he was admitted to the Privy Council. From 1939 to 1947 he was a visiting fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, and in 1955 Manchester University awarded him an honorary LLD. In 1975 the Electrical Electronic Telecommunication and Plumbing Union, of which he was still a member, awarded him its gold badge.
He married 28 March 1914 Dorothy Helen (Doris) (died 1973), daughter of Edgar Slade, commercial traveller, of Pendleton, Manchester. They had two sons. The elder, Norman Arthur (born 1914), solicitor, wrote the standard work, Trade Union Law (1950), and succeeded to the barony when his father died 22 January 1983 at Brixham, Devon.
The Times, 26 January 1983
Lord Citrine, Men and Work, 1964, and Two Careers, 1967 (autobiographies)
TUC Annual Report, 1946
Contributor: Marjorie Nicholson